Zimbabwe: Let’s Deal With Veld Fires

Zimbabwe: Let’s Deal With Veld Fires

13 May 2009

published by allafrica.com

Zimbabwe —

Veld fires have already started, and far worse ones will burn before the heavy rains start falling near the end of the year.

So far we have seen just small fires, but the good rains have produced some excellent grass cover and when the big blazes get started they will spread fast, spread far and be very difficult to put out.

Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Francis Nhema has, as he has in the past, appealed to all to help stop such fires spreading.

Farmers and other land users need to put in wide fireguards, communities need to be ready to fight fires. But more is needed, to compel the unwilling.

In communal lands custom demands that people take precautions and that everyone in a community turns out to fight any fire that does spread into crops or grassland.

You have to be careful about whatever legitimate fires you light to prevent them escaping and if you see smoke you are supposed to turn out to help fight the blaze.

Community pressure, and if necessary the threat of a headman’s investigation, ensure that the unwilling and the lazy do their duty.

In the old commercial farming areas this community pressure once was lacking, and vast areas were burned out before a workable solution was found.

Then for decades intensive farming areas were set up across the commercial lands with the power to stop landowners and land users taking any action that might damage shared resources or through inaction pose a threat to their neighbours.

This covered everything from bad ploughing practices that silted streams and dams to failing to plough in proper fireguards and turn out with the rest of the neighbourhood to fight a major veld fire. Land reform saw these old structures fall away. It is now time for something similar to be put in their place.

Many of the new farmers do follow good environmental practices, or at the very least their lapses are because they do not have access to the latest knowledge rather than deliberate disregard, and do protect their farms and fields from fires.

But there are just as many who do nothing.

They are a positive danger to their neighbours and their communities.

Fireguards work best when the whole countryside is a chequerboard of such protective squares. A few islands of protected fields in the midst of a grassy plain obviously presents little in the way of a barrier.

Minister Nhema correctly talks about the need to charge and penalise farmers and land users who do not take adequate precautions to protect their lands. The problem is two-fold.

First it will be difficult to find these people and secondly legal criminal processes can take a long time, until in fact they become largely academic since the fires have already destroyed the veld.

Minister Nhema’s ministry is the obvious one to take charge and create a new network of formal community groups across the land.

There are enough good farmers to take charge and do the organisation for him; they simply need the powers to force the bad farmers to conform to basic standards.

The old legislation and structures can only be a starting point. Most farms are a lot smaller now, individual farmers have less equipment and far more people will have to be in each grouping.

But we are sure that it would be easy to modify the old structures and regulations to fit the new dispensation and have in all areas what the communal lands have always had: a way of compelling those who do not want to bother to take effective action.

Persuasion can do a lot, but in the end those who refuse to be persuaded have to be made to be responsible members of a community.

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